(Lorri Sughroue/McCook Daily Gazette)
Beginning in September, between four to six offenders from the WEC have come in Fridays and Saturdays and have helped Stewart and other volunteers to prepare dozens of bikes for the annual toy giveaway. Donated bikes are completely taken apart, Stewart said, and built back up, starting with new chains and ball bearings, brake work, new tires with sealants, and topped off with a fresh paint job.
The offenders are allowed to come down to the shop on a rotating basis, he said, with parts of the bike they're currently working on kept boxed so nothing is lost or misplaced.
Stewart, in his 34th year of rebuilding bikes, estimated last year a total of 1,142 hours were put in by offenders, with 152 bikes given away, as well as 24 new wagons, 22 tricycles and 14 scooters.
"They love it," said Stewart, who added his crew of volunteers couldn't have fixed as many bikes if it hadn't been for the offenders help.
Barb Ostrum, in her 15th year as coordinator of the Toy Box Giveaway, agreed with Stewart.
"It's been known that some years we are scrambling around Sunday morning, trying to put together 27 wagons," she said, but because of the offenders help, most bikes, tricycles and wagons are ready to go on time.
They also pitch in with the massive job of relocating all the toys and bikes to the Armory.
"This frees up time for older volunteers, who want to help but can't do all the lifting, " Ostrum said.
Mindy Valentine, offender at the WEC, had no prior experience with bikes yet still signed up, as she said it offered her time away from the camp and she was impressed with the program.
"This is really awesome, what they're doing in this town," she said. Although she had never worked on a bike before, she said she asked lots of questions at first to get her through her unfamiliar process.
For George Sullivan, doing something for someone else has made him feel better about himself.
"Everyone down here has a positive attitude, they all smile and joke around," he said, which in turn rubs off on him. Because of this experience, he said "every time I see a kid riding a bike, I'll think of this place."
Ostrum said they had 100 more people this year at the Coat Closet than last year, so she expects a bigger crowd as well for the toy giveaway.
"Each year it's grown," she said, with people last year coming from nine counties and three states. In 2004, she estimated 575 children received toys from the Toy Box.
Ostrum stressed that the giveaway is for families in need.
"If a family has to choose between paying a heating bill and buying toys, we prefer they pay the bill," she said.
Families are allowed to take as many used toys as they can carry, Ostrum said, with one new toy per child. Interpreters will be on site, and gift wrapping materials will be made available.
Everything is accounted for, so the number of those who take advantage of the toy giveaway is kept to a minimum.
"There are always some who abuse the system," she said, " but those are the minority. We generally know who is who and keep track of everyone."
New toys are shopped for locally, she said, with each purchase being between ten and fifteen dollars. For older children, new toys include clock radios and personal stereos; younger children are offered new trucks, Barbies, and baby dolls.
"We never have enough baby dolls," Ostrum said.
For the bicycles, each family are allowed one bike or tricycle per child.
Bicycles are asked to be returned on a yearly basis so they can be recycled, Stewart said.
This year, he said 18 new wagons, 12 new trikes and additional refurbished trikes, 4 to 5 new scooters, and more than 150 bicycles are expected to be available.
The Toy Box will be raffling off a lifelike baby doll, an electric Barbie car, and a swing set at the giveaway on Dec., 18. You need not be present to win, Ostrum said. Raffle tickets are available for $1 a piece, or 6 for $5, from First Central Bank, McCook National Bank, Ampride, Sue Beebe, Ostrum and Stewart.
New this year is the Christmas Outreach 2005, where offenders who submit a request and are selected for the program, may choose toys the day before the giveaway to send home to their children.
Generous donations from the community have been collected for postage costs, Ostrum said.
Monetary contributions from the community, as well as donations in toys and bikes, have kept the Toy Box going for 24 years now, she said.
Doors for the Toy Box Giveaway are scheduled to open at 1 p.m., with an open house with refreshments for volunteers scheduled to start at 11:30 a.m.